Meet Caroline Dale Ditlev-Simonsen

Caroline Dale Ditlev-Simonsen

Professor Caroline Dale Ditlev-Simonsen recently introduced a new step-by-step process in how to succeed in corporate social responsibility.

Tell me about the roots of the term «corporate social responsibility».
– Limited resources have always been an issue. However, since industrialization
and mass production, the negative social and environmental impact of doing business has become increasingly evident. The introduction of television and social media has made oil-spills and child labor instantly visible across the world. Skepticism and criticism towards corporations have been the result. In response to this, the interest in the concept of corporate social responsibility has increased tremendously. We can’t really go on damaging the environment, depleting resources and not respect the basic rights related to working conditions.

When exactly did it become something academics studied?
– The Brundtland Commission, led by former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, came up with the modern term in their report from 1987: «Sustainable development». That was a real kick-starter. Of course, this wasn’t the first time anybody had thought about these issues. There were people pondering these questions back in the 1920’s and 1950’s. While it is often claimed that the Nobel Economic prize winner Milton Friedman was against corporate social responsibility in his famous article in The New York Times in 1970, «The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits», I think he is misinterpreted. Today, in order to make money, companies absolutely have to think about sustainability. Acting responsibly is profitable – if you do it right. What Friedman was against was corporate philanthropy based on corporate
managers’ personal preferences and that companies should take on governmental responsibilities.

Corporate responsibility is not the same thing as being involved in philanthropy?
– No. Giving money to causes and charities that have nothing to do with your actual business is all well and good, of course. But this is about acting responsibly in what you actually do every day. Like, if you need to package the goods you make, why not use the least possible amount of packaging materials, in order to make the process cheaper, more effective and make the product less expensive to ship? Why not decrease waste and utilize LED light bulbs and save energy and cost in the long term?

Like you said: «Profitable – if you do it right».
– Yes. Some people might find that ethically suspect: «Acting responsible in order to save money? Shouldn’t you do it just to be nice?». Well, if you don’t earn money, you won’t be in a position to be nice. All companies are concerned about thinking ahead,and a lot of them talk a good game. Surprisingly many of them, however, don’t have a clue about how to actually deal with the question of corporate responsibility. It’s not enough to have one lonely soul in your organization, a sole Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, who is tasked with accomplishing this more or less on her own. And yes, it’s often a female employee! Thinking about these problems and solutions needs to be a part of your overall strategy, from financing to marketing to HR and information.

Feeling good about what you do and the place you work is not to be sneezed at either, is it?
– It’s very important, and increasingly so! My students are very, very concerned about this, far more than previous generations. I mean, they’re interested in earning money. But they’re also far more invested in the idea that your job is a big part of your identity as a human being.

Are the young more willing to change behavior as well?
– Now that’s the big question. As of now: Not really. Which makes it even more important that businesses can take the lead in changing behavior.

We’ve been conditioned to think that buying stuff equals happiness.
– We usually look at a country’s gross national product and equate it with happiness. But is that really so? Why is it then, that the countries that usually sit atop The World Happiness Index, also tops the statistics when it
comes to anti-depressants? It’s very interesting to see how we value different
things in different cultures.

Does the term «corporate social responsibility» mean different things in different parts of the world too?
– It does. In some countries, it might have to do with the fight against child labor. In another it might be associated with the Volkswagen scandal, in which one of the world’s most respected companies was caught cheating with their emission technologies. This led to a major drop in brand value. It also led to a major drop in share prices.

You have developed a five-point model that you gave a TED Talk
about recently.
– Map, test, launch, implement, report. Find out what it is you can do. The program has to be anchored in and be endorsed by top management. Then you should put together a group from across the company, with representatives from all departments. Use the United Nations’ checklist – the SDG’s – and find out which goals are most relevant for your particular company. Develop a plan with concrete targets. Present these plans to customers, suppliers, environmental organizations. Ask for input, revise accordingly. Launch the plan and make sure the employees, across the company, are onboard with it. Make it part of their day-today work life. Implement: Follow it through. Are you reaching your goals? If not – why not? Unexpected things will happen. Learn from them. Finally: Report. Be accountable. Be transparent and honest. What worked, what didn’t work? Continue.

"In order to make money, companies have to think about sustainability. Acting responsibly is profitable – if you do it right."

Caroline Dale Ditlev-Simonsen


You’ve read hundreds of sustainability reports. Are they making more sense now that they used to?
– Absolutely, although there’s a tendency in some companies to think that a big, thick report on glossy paper is automatically more convincing that a smaller, to-the-point one. A big report might be all visions and hot air. Give me the numbers!

What would be BI’s biggest negative impact on society?
– Carbon emissions, due to the amount of airline flights. What can be done about it? We can increase the amount of video conferences, for instance. Build more rooms in which to have them, and have people on hand to help if you run into technical difficulties. However, where BI can have the greatest positive impact on sustainability is through our teaching. BI is the first Norwegian educational institution to sign up for Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), required to, amongst other things, develop the capabilities of students to be future generators of sustainable value for business and society at large, and to work for an inclusive and sustainable global economy.

How important is regulation and Government policy in this picture?
– When politicians increase the cost of plastic shopping bags, it sure has an immediate result. Politicians do tremendous things in the area of sustainability. But the fact is that most people want to do something, as long as it doesn’t affect them right here, right now. And politicians want to get reelected. I tend to think that the four-year re-elected cycle is a bit of a problem when it comes to issues that require long-term thinking and, perhaps, the implementing of unpopular policies.
Politicians would need more time in office to be really effective.

Tell me about the concept of «appreciative inquiry».
– We live in the world where a lot of people – not least the media – have a tendency to concentrate on everything that goes wrong. I think we could learn a great deal by studying things that go right. What actually works. Instead of studying a school that has a problem with bullying, let’s look at a school that doesn’t have that problem, and learn from that school.

What could we as consumers do?
– Buy fewer, better products and used products.

That means companies will sell fewer new products.
– It does. Companies will have to increase prices to make up for decreased turnover. Also, and this is the very core of what I’m interested in, companies can decrease their own expenditure in order to increase profits. Purchasing a super expensive bag that you have been longing for, for a long time, is more sustainable – and will generate more happiness – than buying 20 cheap bags you hardly ever use.

You’ve traveled in third world countries. What have you learned?
– I was in Myanmar recently. Now I’m not saying that Myanmar is the gold standard of a well-run, happy society. Horrible things have happened there, especially in the north. On the other hand: There were no beggars. People seemed pleased with
what they had. I walked the streets in the middle of the night, and didn’t feel scared at all. People were nice. I resent the idea that the way we should help them, is to force our way of living upon them. Increase production, set up H&Ms … I mean, if everyone had the level of consumption we do in the west, we would need four planets to sustain us. We could certainly learn something from them as well. We shouldn’t be imperialistic on behalf of western culture. When it comes to sustainability, western culture hasn’t worked very well at all.

Were you always interested in questions like these?
– I think so. I thought about it when I was appointed as a professor. I started thinking about why I was where I was, you know. Then I came across an old story in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, in which I was interviewed – along with my brother and our neighbour – when I was about 10 years old. We were at a sports event in Holmenkollen in Oslo, and we were cleaning up, collecting empty bottles and getting the deposit money. So even back then I was interested in both the environment and cash!

You took a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in Vancouver?
– Yes, and I realized that I wasn’t very interested in economics. It was a fluke, really. I wanted to go abroad, and I didn’t want to go as an au pair! Later, in Boston, I took a Master’s degree in Energy and Environmental Studies. Now that I found interesting! I took a job at the International Chamber of Commerce in New York, where we worked closely with the UN on achieving the goals from Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Business and sustainability – that was right where I wanted to be.

And then back to Norway?
– Yes, I got a job at Kværner ASA working on new technologies in waste water management, and later in the insurance company Storebrand, where I was responsible for one of the very first reports on Corporate Social Responsibility ever
published in Norway. I was also a board member of WWF-Norway. It was there I met Jørgen Randers, who was a former President at BI. I told him I was interested in getting a doctorate. «Come to BI and I will be your supervisor!», he said.

And now you’ve been here for 12 years.
– There’s just so much happening in this particular area right now. I’m very happy that sustainability has become a part of BI’s strategy. And that BI was the first seat of education in Norway that committed to PRME: Principles for Responsible Management Education.

What do you do in your spare time?
– Having three kids tends to eat up a great deal of your spare time. But I enjoy running, doing yoga, windsurfing,
paddling and skiing. And I bicycle all year round.

In the wintertime too?
– Yeah. I use studded tires!

Reference: BI Advantage 2 2018 The magazine for members of BI Alumni

Text: Morten Ståle Nilsen

Published 8. January 2019

You can also see all news here.